In a Southern Closet:
A Story of Life, Turmoil, God’s Love, and Hope
By: Roberta Binder
What I know: God doesn’t care—God doesn’t care what my history is, doesn’t care what my sexual orientation is, and doesn’t care who my partner is. God does care—that I love Him with Joy and Love in my heart and Love and Respect all His people. And that is the equal Love and Respect I want.”
There is that wonderful old adage: “Until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes… ” That is the story that Robin Whitley shares in her memoir In A Southern Closet. The book is truly a lesson for everyone of holding strong to your principles. Recently, Robin, Dianne (her partner of over six years) and I sat down for a delightful afternoon.
Robin opened the conversation with some background. “When I started looking for some reading to help me with the life that I was finally acknowledging, I would go to a bookstore and discover there were only books on erotica. This was back in the ‘80s and Regal Crest Books wasn’t around then. I’m a Christian Lesbian. Back then, there was no point of reference for me! Not that I wasn’t sexual, that just wasn’t all that I was.
“I started this book to share with others the experience of being a homosexual Christian—many straight people are condemning you because you are lesbian/gay and the lesbian/gay community is upset because they are persecuted by the Christian community. And so the homosexual Christian lives in a no-mans-land.”
In reality Robin’s entire life had been, and continues to be, a walk with her deep love of God and Jesus. She grew up outside of Charlotte. The Christian church was not a forced element of her childhood; it was one she happily embraced. “I was a religious little girl and in sixth grade, I decided I was going to do something religious with my life. I say that because I was Baptist when I was younger and wanted to be a missionary. That was the only option for girls. I’ve always been a musician and I was going to be a music missionary.”
When Robin graduated she went off to college. It was here that she more openly began to acknowledge to herself (and slowly to others) that she was a closeted lesbian. So she began to dip her toe into a world she knew she belonged in, but that was totally foreign to her in reality.
With graduation, she decided to return to her home area and as time went on she became a choir director, youth director, got very involved in the Lutheran church and heard about Grace. She comments: “Forgiveness —WOW, this feels good!” As Robin learned more about the theology of the Lutheran doctrine, she realized this philosophy was closer to where her belief system was based. And God kept calling to her more and more.
Slowly, Robin came to heed God’s Call and went to Seminary at Lutheran Theological Seminary with a focus on Pastoral Care and Counseling in Columbia, South Carolina. She was ordained into the North Carolina Synod, which was more open at the time then other Synods. She was ordained as a pastor of a church in Charlotte. “I fought my Call—but finally realized it was my life’s work.” She served as a pastor for a couple of years that were full of blessing.
“The original reason I left the church was for health issues. I can’t work 24/7 and stay well. For me it became a matter of taking care of my health.” Then she came out to the Bishop of the Synod and her right to practice God’s Call was removed, but not her deep Love of her God.
She did a lot of counseling prior to coming out; what she hadn’t realized was how much of her identity was tied up in her Church life. And so, as Robin came out publicly, she lost much of her inner self that was tied up in the Church. “I was lost,” she states.
With it all, she felt fortunate for the love and support that life did provide for her. Although it was difficult for her to share with her parents her sexual orientation she finally found their support. Her parents knew that she loved (and continues to love) God, “I spent my whole life serving God, so even my parents struggled with their faith beliefs and their personal knowing of their daughter.” It was a time of many challenges. What got her through? “God was always by my side.”
And so, as always, life is filled with change. Slowly life has evolved for Robin and she has found the good life through her new hearing of God’s Call for her. “I love my job as an Academic Advocate at Southwestern. It helps me take care of my health and support students and I love education. I’m able to talk to the students and listen to their goals and dreams. And while it isn’t a religious or spiritual job, the topic comes up at times. Sometimes they see my degree and ask spiritual questions and then I can talk about faith with them.” Additionally it gives her time for her music, art, writing and story-telling which all fill her spiritual soul.
She went on to discuss her healing at this point in time. “One of the things this journey has taught me… at times it has been a love/hate relationship with the church because I was very hurt by the church when they removed me as pastor. At the same time there is a beauty in the community. I feel that God wants us to have that seamlessness that we [all] come together—that we are not alone. The worship center is where we come to be renewed and centered and can go back home refilled. Life has always been sacred for me.”
Robin always knew she was different. “Only thing I hated growing up [about going to church] was I had to wear that dang dress!” Today, in a loving relationship, Robin has found her response to God’s new Call and a loving church community.
“I wrote the book because there are other gays and lesbians out there who are hiding in churches who need to know they are okay. God loves them. They can be themselves and be loved by God.”
She continues, “There are many gays and lesbians whom I’ve known for decades who have been married longer than many of my heterosexual coupled friends. One of the things I hope my book will do is help parents of gays and lesbians see their children as decent people, so that then we can get past this idea that all we are about is having sex; that we are, at our roots, no different than other people. One of the reasons I’m for homosexual marriage has nothing to do with the paper. We [Robin and Dianne] had our blessing of our rings ceremony because for us marriage is a promise to God and each other.”
In our society today—around the world—we are losing sight of many of the indigenous rituals of life; the many joyous celebrations that honored the significant growth steps in the life of a child, teen and adult. Today so many of those honoring times get swept under the carpet so to speak and are lost in our too-busy-lives to notice that the babe is now a toddler and now young adult. When we go through those celebration rituals we are acknowledging and honoring important life steps.
In A Southern Closet not only touches the lives of the LGBT community, it is the story of all our lives. In some way we have all stepped out of our personal shadow world. I know you will enjoy it and grow. Robin notes, “One older straight woman wrote to me to say, ‘I’m so glad you wrote this book. By the time I got to the end, I was so sorry to have to close the book.’ Her comments made me realize that this book is the human experience.”
The book is a 20-year memoir in essay and poetry. It is available in Asheville at Malaprop’s, City Lights Bookstore in Sylva and online through Amazon.com, and BellaBooks.com.
Why is this article important to each of us?
There is an initiative on the North Carolina May 8th primary ballot calling for a referendum measure which reads:
Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.
If approved, the proposed measure would amend Article 14 of the North Carolina Constitution by adding a new section:
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.
I asked Robin to share her wisdom for voters:
“How many lives have been discounted as good and loving, because of a lack of [approved legal] documentation? Through this initiative you are stepping back into discrimination. How can so many people who are setting a good example of a solid relationship be wrong and/or discriminated against? I have seen couples in 30- and 40- year relationships, who cannot jointly own property, when the home-owning partner dies the other is turned out with no legal claim.
“When you look at people who are in the heterosexual community, who have complete support of their community and are in divorce court and then you have a couple with over 40 years of life together, with no community support system, what does that say about the power of love and commitment?”
She closed with, “Let’s pray for a positive outcome. Why can’t we see each person as a valid and important gift? Confident women are role models for others—their sexual orientation or life choices are beside the point.”
Roberta Binder is an editor who enjoys working with authors to bring their words to life: RobertaEdits.com. She is also a writer and photo-journalist who enjoys all her writing adventures with WNC Woman – Women Nurturing Change!